State lawmakers approved a budget last week and Republicans praised it by pointing out that it sent more money to schools this year without raising taxes. But some Democrats said, "No, it actually cut schools budget." So who's right?
There are a lot of numbers here so I'm going to get the help of an accountant. He's not just any accountant. He's Phillip Price, the CFO for North Carolina public schools. He follows the state budget process closely.
"[This year was] like every year. They spend a little bit of time discussing in public and a lot of time discussing in private," says Price. The budget lawmakers approved sends more money to schools than last year. It provides about a one percent raise for teachers and $27 million to pay for several policy changes which include an emphasis on reading. But that's not money districts can use to hire teachers after several years of lay offs.
The budget does include an extra $69 million that districts can use to do that. You may have heard talk about a reversion, usually spoken by policy wonks. Price has another term for it, a negative reserve.
"It's technically a hole in the budget that the school districts have to fill," says Price. Here's out it works: The state will soon send its yearly payments to local districts. And like the last three years, school districts will have to return a lot of that money right after they receive it. Last year, school districts had to give back $429 million. This year, it would be $360 million.
It seems silly, but Price says it's lawmakers' way of letting districts decide what to cut, instead of making the decision for them. "Some feel it's better to have the local school districts which are closer to the situation to be able to manage those cuts, rather than arbitrarily deciding what formulas to adjust at the state level," says Price.
A smaller reversion means more money for districts. So Republican lawmakers are right when they say the budget spends more on schools this year. But Democratic lawmakers and Governor Perdue are also right when they say school districts will lose money. They're talking about the bigger picture which includes federal money.
About $259 million in federal dollars is set to expire this fall. Districts could only use that money for salaries to pay school staff like teachers, teaching assistants, and custodians. It was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"So technically there was an increase in the General Assembly's budget, but it didn't offset the $259 million," says Price. So this year, if the General Assembly's budget holds, school districts across the state will have $190 million less to pay for teaching positions.
But Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is in a better position than some other districts. There won't be any layoffs here this year. The district planned ahead, made cuts and even got some extra help from the county.